You might feel virtuous when ordering salad as a main course at a chain restaurant, but if you use all the toppings and dressing provided, you could have been better off ordering a bacon cheeseburger. That's what we found when we looked at the nutrition of 20 meal-size salads, with and without toppings, from eight major fast-food and casual restaurant chains. Nutrition scores are based on calories, fat, sodium, and fiber.
Some restaurants dole out as much as 4 tablespoons of dressing. For ranch, that could mean almost 300 calories, 30 grams of fat, and 500 milligrams of sodium (about 22 percent of the daily recommended limit).
Five salads score Very Good for nutrition, but most do so only if undressed. Just one, On the Border Citrus Chipotle Chicken salad, has Very Good nutrition with the dressing. It has about 300 calories and 3 grams of fat. But choose Chili's Quesadilla Explosion Salad and you'll consume 1,400 calories and 88 grams of fat. The chart (available to subscribers) shows the nutrition of all the Very Good choices plus one Good alternative at each of several other chains.
Two tasters also tried some higher-scoring salads. The results:
This BBQ salad is well blended, moist, and flavorful even without the dressing; highlights are sweet roasted corn, tasty tortilla strips, and black beans. The Asian Sesame salad has crispy fried wonton strips, but the chicken has little flavor, so you really need some dressing. The Fuji Apple salad has crispy dried apple slices, flavorful pecans, and gorgonzola cheese.
The Citrus Chipotle salad, which has some heat, consists of fresh, flavorful pulled chicken with fresh greens, vegetables, and orange pieces. The dressing is the weakest link.
Its Chicken Caesar has warm, flavorful chicken and crunchy croutons. Dressing helps balance the ingredients.
Cut calories, fat, and sodium in any salad by limiting extras such as croutons, asking for dressing on the side so you can add a small amount, or using a lower-fat one. Putting dressing on the Sonic salad would add almost 200 calories, 20 grams of fat, and about 360 milligrams of sodium.